The Predicament of the Arab-Palestinian Feminist Movement

by Lena Meari

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Lena Meari, is assistant professor at the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the Institute of Women Studies at Birzeit University, Palestine. She has special interest in anti-colonial feminist movements and is co-editor of “Rethinking Gender in Revolutions and Resistance: Lessons from the Arab World” (2015).

To capture the various life conditions and specificities of women in the Arab world, and the diverse ways in which women cope with and confront them, it is crucial to consider the multiple fields of power that dominate their lives and challenge the hegemonic discourses that frame discussions about them. These themes had motivated the writing of Rethinking Gender in Revolutions and Resistance: Lessons from the Arab World, a book I co-edited with Maha El-Said and Nicola Pratt. The book addressed the complex multiple layers of analysis required in order to situate the socio-political events that swept the Arab world since the end of 2010, and examined shifts in gender dynamics, roles and norms that accompanied Arab women’s participation in anti-colonial struggles and sociopolitical transformations. The book problematized dominant ontological and epistemological frameworks for thinking about Arab women’s bodies and agency as well as the hegemonic reduction of Arab women’s life conditions to the fixed binary of Islamic/secular formations that obscures economic, geo-political, colonial and neocolonial structures.
In this essay I will focus specifically on the Palestinian colonial context. The question that leads this inquiry is how to build an Arab-Palestinian feminist agenda that is linked to struggles of national liberation, decolonization and social-economic justice in the contexts of Zionist settler colonial domination, imperialist neo-liberal intervention , and global corporatism that subjects its people to poverty and deprivation.


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This question has been at the heart of the theoretical and political interests of the Institute of Women Studies (IWS) at Birzeit University in Palestine. The words of IWS’ director Eileen Kuttab at the opening of the IWS conference “Struggles for Freedom” in March 2016, reflect IWS’ engagement with this question especially when she suggested that indigenous self-determination and fighting for the land must become the foundation for all our broader social-justice mobilizing. Fragmentary approaches that dominate the machinery of neo-liberal hegemonic narratives can compartmentalize such struggle or subordinate it to other forms of structural oppression. We need to avoid assimilation within the neo-liberal model, which fails to address the material realities of colonialism, imperialism, and poverty impacting Arab women’s lives and are turning societies into unproductive consuming societies that become co-opted in the capitalist machinery. The inherent right to traditional lands and to self-determination is expressed collectively in Palestine and should not be subsumed within the discourse of individual or human rights. Similarly, donor communities have forced the struggle for women’s rights and women’s emancipation, which exists within national liberation struggles, to be fragmented and delinked from struggles for national or political-economic rights.
The normative frames and hegemonic discourses that constitute the frameworks for dealing with Palestinian women’s issues include: the colonial-orientalist discourse, the national secular patriarchal discourse, the developmental discourse, and the religious discourse. Most hegemonic dealings with Palestinian women issues are implicated within these discourses, leaving no space or position from which Palestinian women can speak. I call this condition “the predicament of the Arab-Palestinian feminist movement”.
The colonial-orientalist discourse represents Palestinian women as oppressed victims of their inherent traditional culture. This discourse is prominent in the way in which violence against Palestinian women is de-contextualized, focusing on the violence of Palestinian men while ignoring the violence of Zionist settler colonialism and the economic violence that neo-liberal policies entail. The colonial-orientalist discourse creates the binary of secularism/modernism/progress versus Islam/backwardness/tradition. The rationale behind this binary links secularism with progress and rationality and links the atrocities against women with religion, tradition and irrationality. This binary ignores the atrocities of secular regimes such as those related to colonialism and neoliberalism. This discourse claims that women benefit from secular regimes and are the victims of religious/Islamic movements. Within this discourse the veil becomes a signifier for women’s oppression, legitimizing colonial interventions such as the extremely violent military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq under the auspice of liberating Muslim women from their apparently patriarchal oppressive cultures. Western media focuses on the oppression of women and the imposition of the veil. This focus can be found in New York Times articles on Hamas as a movement that oppresses women and imposes the veil upon them. By excluding any representation of Israeli colonialism, and the fact that Zionist colonization had oppressed all Palestinian resistant movements including the secular and Marxist Palestinian resistant movements, this presentation of Hamas legitimizes the Israeli colonial state’s oppression. The colonial-orientalist discourse gave rise to a religious Islamic discourse on women as the negation of the colonial discourse and a consequent rejection of any mobilization for women’s issues within Palestine.


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The other hegemonic discourse in the Palestinian context is the developmental discourse led by the donor community. This discourse claims that the liberation of women and the development of the society lays in transforming the Palestinian society into the image of the West and this is linked with the transformation of women into the “imagined image” of the Western liberal women. This discourse ignores the stark realities of women’s oppression in Western societies such as the extremely high rates of sexual and domestic violence or the ways corporate capitalism defines Western women as sexualized objects, commodities and consumers.
Within the national patriarchal discourse as reflected in the Palestinian authority’s position, women are co-opted into the pseudo Palestinian state institutions such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, an institution that focuses on state building and legal reforms amid the continuation of the Zionist colonial condition in Palestine.
Finally, the dominant religious discourse in Palestine reduces the conditions of women to religion and ignores the political-economic aspects that form their existence and life experiences such as their class conditions. To monopolize power and seek grassroots legitimacy, this discourse defines women’s struggles as a Westernized illegitimate practice despite the fact that these struggles emerge from Palestinian women’s lived experiences and conditions.
These are the hegemonic discourses that should be challenged by an organic Palestinian feminist movement, which is geared towards creating an alternative position from which to form its agenda and struggle for the liberation of Palestinian women and the liberation of their communities. The critical Palestinian feminist movement should engage in producing de-colonized knowledge, and employing this knowledge in the struggle for the freedom of the colonized Palestinian people. This can only happen through countering the hegemony of mainstream imperialist and reactionary regional discourses and acting through liberatory paradigms that are linked to the daily struggles of the people (28 June 2016).

Further reading

Meari, Lena (2015) Re-signifying Sexual Colonial Power Techniques: The Experiences of Palestinian Women Political Prisoners. In: El Said, Maha; Meari, Lena; Pratt, Nicola (2015) Rethinking Gender in Revolutions and Resistance: Lessons from the Arab World. Zed Books, London.

Kuttab, Eileen (2014) New Challenges for the Palestinian Women’s Movement. This Week in Palestine, issue 196.

Jad, Islah (2009) The NGO-isation of Arab Women’s Movements. IDS Bulletin, 35, 4.

Silmi, Amira (2009) On Women and Resistance: The Colonial Narrative. MUWATEN: the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy. Ramallah-Palestine.

Fleischmann, Ellen L. (2003) The Nation and Its “New” Women: The Palestinian Women’s Movement, 1920-1948. University of California Press.

Hammami, Rema (1998) The Cultural Construction of Gender, Labour and Culture: Memories of Labour of Palestinian Peasant Women Before the Nakbe of 1948. In: Huda Saada et.al (1998, eds.) Women's History and Alternative Memory. Wahba Press. Cairo.

Jayawardena, Kumari (1994) Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World. Zed Books, London.

Jad, Islah (1990) From Salon Ladies to Popular Committees: Palestinian Women, 1919-1989. In: Nassar and Heacock (1990) Intifada: Palestine at the Crossroads. Praeger, New York, pp.125-134.